I have a very strong memory of my last days as a Rotary Exchange student in Teshikaga, Hokkaido, Japan. The doorbell would ring, a lovely person would be standing there, maybe I knew them, maybe I wouldn’t, and they would have this gift for me. Not some little key chain or charm. No, an elaborate wooden carving of something or other. This was a problem because in July of 1982 the only reasonable mailing was by ship and it was expensive. The Rotary club had already pitched in and paid for one box because they knew two things: it wasn’t my fault and it wasn’t going to stop. The Japanese give gifts.
Souvenir gifts have a much bigger purpose in Japan than in the United States. The first thing you notice when you arrive into any kind of station or port is that there are beautifully wrapped boxes for sale. They are usually the local delicacy or traditional item. Each location has a special type of sweet to eat with your tea. This delicacy will have a special stamp, shape or ingredient. They come beautifully wrapped, actually, wrapped beautifully. The paper is relatively simple, but its heavy and elegant. Only one piece of adhesive is used, a foil seal. When I was an exchange student I didn’t fully grasp the significance of these gifts.
My husband’s company did a generous and smart thing. They provided us with a two-day culture workshop for just my husband and I. Many memories were given context during those days. As a student I went with no background. While there I was given little formal teaching of the language or culture. Computers were not around. My understanding of the culture was like my fourth graders understanding of theirs. Experiential. There are times I just know things. I can’t articulate why I know them, I just do. I found our two days learning about living in Japan very enlightening and gave meaning to memories. Rich and I walked away with very different understandings.
A little background. Rich’s company took over the Japanese plant. This is a significant event where the Japanese lost face. On the surface Rich has a job dealing with computer chips. He has another mission; to build relationships so that people can work together. Gift giving is an integral part of the Japanese culture. So I kept urging him to find some small, significant treat to take. There are about thirty-five in his group. We don’t have this custom so finding something that would be easy to bring proved difficult. Rich really couldn’t picture what I was talking about, and it felt esoteric and phony to him, so we didn’t find anything in Boise. Luckily, we had found some nice German chocolate in the Seattle airport at their Duty Free shop and we bought that. Every morning after he would go to work, I would notice the pretty bag in the corner of our room.
The second week of work my husband’s group gave him a welcoming party. At that party they encouraged him to go to Iwakuni. We had a lovely time. We were going to be moving out of the hotel the next week. My days at the Sheraton had been fun. But each day there was an incident of one thing or another. Many mornings we were greeted with instructions slipped under our door. Each envelope contained more explicit instructions than the last one. I worked hard staying out of the staffs’ way and being friendly. But it was apparent that the foreigners create more work and stress on the staff than the countrymen.
So as we walked through Iwakuni station on the way home, I noticed that the Iwakuni cookies were shaped like their famous bridge. I had been looking for a gift to give the staff as a way of saying “sorry for the inconvenience”. Rich was impatient with me. Why are you doing this? We haven’t been that bad. Right before we boarded, I found a big box of cookies, decided, paid, and slipped them into my backpack.
The next morning Rich was packing up to get on the train and picked up my cookies. “Hey, can I give these to the guys at work? They are the ones that suggested we go to Iwakuni. It would show them that I listened and be a thank-you. You can give the staff the chocolate. “ Rich was beginning to think like a Japanese.
Our lesson in gift giving was not over. We had heard about people having neighbor troubles. Emi-san explained that it is custom for the new tenant to give a simple gift to their neighbors. It is a way of saying, “pardon us because we will disturb you accidentally in the future”. Another purpose is that our name will be on it and then our neighbors will know our name. It is a modest, usable household item. It will be wrapped, which is why I picked a box of laundry detergent. No, not the big boxes you all have in your laundry rooms. In Hiroshima they are about the size of squarish Kleenex box. It can’t be the cheep no name brand. It has to be something that is popular. Ideally, you give this gift as soon as possible. We had only been successful at delivering two that day. The owner, the most important recipient, had not been home. We didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of such a custom. But we would.
We had started carrying our fourth load of Costco booty into the building when Rich noticed the house key was not on the key chain. To get into the apartment you have to have a key to open huge glass sliding doors. As we stood there in shock and panic, a young tenant came through. In Japanese he said hello Housleys and thank you for the gift. He was very smiley. We hastily reintroduced ourselves and then asked if he would open the door for us. He did gladly. The gift giving had paid off.
Sunday afternoon we decided to venture out and walk to the local hardware store. To our dismay, a now famous note was on our windshield. When I called Emi-san to help us, the first thing she said was, “Did you deliver the gift?” We hadn’t. All the way to the store we kvetch back and forth. How could a little trinket cause such a ruckus? When we returned, a gentleman was loading his car. By the time we were entering the building he was calling after us. Immediately he apologized for not being able to speak English. He was the owner. I turned to Rich and said, “Go get the gift! Hurry!”
I could tell that the owner was very embarrassed by the incident. He had not been informed of us moving in or that we had a rental car. The car tags are from another prefecture. Parking in Japan is at a premium and he had thought someone was taking advantage of the spot. Rich comes barreling through the glass doors. In Japan you hold important things with both hands. And bow nice and deep. So I grab the gift, with both hands offering it and bowing deeply. The look on the man’s face expressed the power of participating in cultural traditions. He immediately read our name, and bowed deeply again, apologizing again for the note and thanking us for our gift. Then he smiled a relaxed, friendly smile.
Gifts are about relationships. In this culture it is acknowledged that by living together we impact each other. Small gifts nourish, tend, and repair relationships. Rich had mentioned to Emi-san that it is frustrating that eating establishments don’t have napkins. Sure enough, she gave us each a little terry cloth handkerchief that the natives use. I gave her a small box of toffees from the Idaho Candy company. My young mom friends gave me a box of Hiroshima maple leaf cookies. None of this was necessary. Or was it?